U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visited the Bay Area last week to speak in a spiritual venue about a contemplative theme – the meaningful life.
Yet the crowd of largely young people who packed Stanford’s Memorial Church sought out a spicier side of the 83-year-old icon.
In a month when lawyers have swarmed to airport arrival halls to volunteer their services to visiting foreigners – when yet another judge experienced the uncensored Twitter wrath of the candidate-turned-U.S. president – it is less of a stretch to see the heroic role that lawyers hold in Ginsburg’s vision of America. It falls to them, she told her audience, to “remind lawmakers that our Constitution shields the right to write, think and speak without fear of reprisal.”
Approximately 1,000 students and members of the community gathered at Stanford’s Memorial Church Feb. 6 to hear Ginsburg give this year’s “Rathbun Lecture on a Meaningful Life.”
The annual tradition, revived in 2008, invites public figures to campus for a public exercise in self-reflection and moral inquiry. Ginsburg – or “The Notorious R.B.G.,” as young fans have affectionately renamed her – represents a cultural phenomenon as well as a history-making judicial and civil rights trailblazer.
Ginsburg discussed hot-button topics, saying that she personally would want to see the death penalty abolished, the Electoral College reformed and partisan politics released from its current stalemate. She celebrated the concept of “We the People,” largely now understood as an embracive term that protects all Americans with equal rights – and noted that this was not the understanding in the least during the writing of the Constitution, a time when slavery was accepted into the nation’s founding and women were legally defined as subordinate to men.
Her commentary was passionate about advancing equal rights, but not partisan. Ginsburg referred fondly and often to how her friendship with the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia functioned to advance both of their contributions to the court – even in opposition. The two – famously and vociferously divided on key opinions – were buddies both at work and in their private lives, dining together as family friends and offering collegial feedback on the very judgments they contested.
“Despite our strong disagreement on cardinal issues,” she said of her fellow justices, “we genuinely respect each other and even enjoy each other’s company. All of us revere the Constitution and the court.”
That ability to find enduring warmth across a profound political divide has faded even during her time on the court. Ginsburg has said that her work for women’s equality would now, in 2017, probably be viewed as disqualifying for a seat on the Supreme Court – though back in 1993, she was approved by a 96-3 vote, with support from partisan figures such as Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. Her work 40 years ago to secure equal citizenship stature for women and men might seem like a given now – yet somehow it is also, politically, more controversial.
“I wish there were a way I could wave a magic wand and put it back when people were respectful of each other and the Congress was working for the good of the country, and not just along party lines,” she said.
Putting power to work
Ginsburg said her key to living a “meaningful” life was to do something outside yourself. True professionals, she said, don’t just practice their skills, they also seek to repair tears in their community, and make things a little better for the people around them. Asked about memorable cases during her lifetime, Ginsburg highlighted the “everyday” men and women who used the law to address family and gender-related inequalities.
Growing up with few real-life models of women in prominent public life, Ginsburg cited Amelia Earhart and Nancy Drew as her half-fictitious cadre of early inspiration. That lack colored her future belief, shared with former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, that the first step to getting power for women was to become visible to others – and then put on an impressive show.
With a husband in the U.S. Army and an infant to care for, her father-in-law told her, “You will stop worrying and you will find a way.” She now credits her baby daughter with helping find the “sense of proportion” – the “work/life balance” as we would now call it, she noted with the voice of an earlier era – to thrive in an ambitious and extremely lengthy legal career.
After studying at Cornell, Harvard and Columbia universities, Ginsburg began work as a boundary-shattering lawyer who earned prominent professional positions while raising a young family. After co-founding the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and serving as the ACLU’s general counsel, Ginsburg was ultimately nominated to the Supreme Court in 1993. After taking the bench as the second – and for many years, only – female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ginsburg’s plucky commitment to battling discrimination grew to near legendary status among law students and young fans. They created internet memes, picture books and even a coloring book depicting Ginsburg variously as a superhero and riding a unicorn over a rainbow. As the coloring book creators wrote last year, “Ginsburg is both one of America’s most powerful women and one of its most protective of other women.”
Asked about what she thinks of her viral fame and the nickname inspired by The Notorious B.I.G. – the late, influential African-American rapper approximately twice her size – Ginsburg’s response was dry: “It is perfectly understandable; we were both born and bred in Brooklyn, New York.”